The World According to Garp
by John Irving
Movie: dir. George Roy Hill; written by Steve Tesich
Movie: 1.75 out of 4 stars
Book: 4.5 out of 5 stars
I’ve been discussing very successful, sometimes astoundingly adapted films lately. The Martian, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, among other have surprised with the improvements or even just adequacy of ripping characters from the page. There is a very different side to the “Now A Major Motion Picture” stickering: the terrible adaptation. I’m not talking about The Da Vinci Code being turned from a mediocre book to a mediocre to bad movie. I’m talking, “Why the hell did they even bother? This is an insult to the book!” type of bull.
In this episode of “some people just shouldn’t read,” we are exploring The World According to Garp, adapted from John Irving’s groundbreaking 1978 novel. The novel, which follows T.S. Garp from his bastard beginnings to his adventurous childhood to his tumultuous adult life, was dazzlingly written and full of controversial material handled with the utmost delicacy. A transsexual character, radical feminism, reasonable feminism, non-traditional sexual relationships and other topics simply and eloquently, or violently, weave through the pages spanning Garp’s entire life. This book is spectacular and a delightful surprise, particularly since I saw and thought I liked the movie, but that was about 10 years ago.
In an effort to catch up with a century of filmmaking, I binge watched as much as I could during my last few years of high school. One of these catch up tasks was watching as many Oscar nominated roles as I could muster. Thanks to nominations for Glenn Close and John Lithgow, then and now two of my favorite working actors, I chose to watch The World According to Garp. I know I liked it back then, but I’m almost sure I liked it for their still admittedly good performances. That is where the enjoyment maintained with my return viewing.
The film was all wrong, stemming from the terrible tagline, “He’s got a funny way of looking at life.” Garp, here played by a young Robin Williams, gets sped through his childhood, schooling, marriage, and then focuses on some affairs, crises, and violence. People go from loving to hating him, introducing a slew of characters that are hardly mentioned again. He has moderate success as a writer, and he makes some friends and enemies along the way. No one ever comes to know Garp, because T.S. Garp was not a character with a “funny way of looking at life.” He was a character who was pissed off and astounded at how his life was being lived via more famed family and friends, and his work was never appreciated how he had hoped. He was an imperfect man and just barely balanced the line between wanting to like him and wanting him to just go away, the sore loser.
Surrounding Garp was a colorful, wonderfully detailed cast of eccentric characters. His mother Jenny Fields, a serious realist in the novel, is played nicely by Glenn Close, a whole four years older than Robin Williams. Glenn’s Jenny is an ever optimistic, even tempered nurse with a knowing tone in her voice. She plays a very even keel, always in control of her faculties, possessing significantly more poise than one would expect from Garp’s less than ethical beginnings. Her plain spokenness maintains humor, even with the heavily diminished character.
Sharing in her success is John Lithgow whose transsexual character Roberta Muldoon, formerly NFL player Robert Muldoon, maintaining the integrity or the source material. Hilarious and warm, Lithgow isn’t given as much as he can handle, but what he is given actually removes some of the slight hysterics from Roberta’s character and leaves a nonthreatening, pleasant portrait of a friend and adopted member of Garp’s family who just happens to have had a sex change. Lithgow, well acquainted with LGBT culture playing an older gay man just last year in Love is Strange, treats the role with tenderness instead of playing a stereotype.
Now that I’ve gotten the good out of the way, the rest of the movie is a mess. Writer Steve Tesich deserves to have his typewriter impounded for this disastrous adaptation. Having won the screenwriting Oscar for Breaking Away three years before Garp, one would expect a more handily produced script. He pulled quite a few good lines from Irving’s novel, but major points were sped through, and Garp’s world was drained of the death obsessed, sexually revolutionary source.
The Academy Award winning director of The Sting and Butch Cassidy George Roy Hill added no substance. The actors were over the top through any emotional scene, and for a story with so much sadness, we found much more melodrama. Taking a story sapped of all of its importance, he is left with a plotless husk from which to seep delicious emptiness.
As co-producer, I blame him heavily. If he read the book, I’m not sure he understood it. With great power comes the possibility to receive my judgment 33 years after a premiere and thirteen years after his death. Some novels can’t be filmed, and honestly I see this as one of them. Just don’t take something good with a name and toss it vaguely on the screen. Let’s keep something not making my eyes bug out Marty Feldman-style.